HOOVER, Ala.—One of the unique things about college athletics is that players are only around for a few years, and then they inevitably move on. So it's easy to appreciate the great ones as their college careers wind down, knowing their time on campus is running short.
Louisiana State fans know they only have a few more weeks to watch Aaron Nola perform his artistry on the mound, and they made sure to express their appreciation with a thunderous standing ovation as he walked off the mound in the eighth inning of LSU's 7-2 win against Arkansas on Thursday at the SEC tournament. Nola improved to 10-1 on the season, holding the Hogs to a pair of runs on five hits over 7 1/3 innings while striking out seven.
"I thought Aaron was outstanding, as usual," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. "He's such a leader, and simply one of the greats of all-time—certainly at LSU, and in my coaching career. He demonstrated today once again what makes him so special. Not just that great stuff or talent, but that little something extra.
"I've run out of things, really, to talk about with this kid. Every time he pitches, it seems like he outdoes himself. But this really shows the true greatness of Nola . . . When he gets in jams, he just has this innate ability to raise his game to another level. And that's essentially what he did in the first inning, he kept his team in the game, and then he started dominating."
What else is there to say about Nola? He is truly a master of his craft, and turns in exceptional performances week after week after week. He is clearly college baseball’s best pitcher, and he has been for two years running, putting up absurdly dominant numbers as a Friday night ace in the nation’s best conference. To Mainieri's credit, the uncommonly eloquent coach still manages to find new ways to describe Nola's brilliance even after three years. Nola is worthy of all the tributes—like this post—he has inspired, and all of the tributes still to come over the next month.
Nola actually struggled a bit with his command in the first inning Thursday, allowing a run on two hits and walking two (one intentional). But with the bases loaded and two outs, he escaped with a groundout, and he proceeded to hold Arkansas hitless for the next four innings.
"I got myself into a jam, I got behind in counts, and they were finding holes," Nola said. "After that, we got that run and I regrouped myself and I put up a couple zeroes."
Scouts behind home plate said they saw exactly what they always see from Nola. He ran his fastball up to 95-96 mph in the first, settled in at 92-94 and held that velocity all the way through the eighth inning. He threw his 79-81 mph slider for strikes, and the pitch was particularly effective when he threw it on the inside corner against righthanded hitters, because his low slot, extension and the depth of the pitch make it look like it's coming right at them, before crossing the plate. And he mixed in his 83-84 mph changeup effectively, often for groundball outs against lefties. As usual his command of his entire repertoire was pinpoint after that first inning.
"He looks like when he throws the ball he's handing it to his catcher, wherever the catcher puts his glove," Mainieri said. "From the side, it looks like the umpire is missing every call when he calls a ball, because he always hits the glove . . . But everything is right there, and his command is extraordinary."
Nola didn't show us anything Thursday that he hasn't shown over and over again, but it's hard not to marvel at his consistency. Unless you're in the opposite dugout, of course.
"You just don't get too many shots at him. This is the third or fourth time we've faced him in the last couple years, basically the same thing each time," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.
"We've never beaten him. Somebody got him this year, I think that was a home run against Florida, and that was late. He's awfully, awfully good. I'll be glad to get him out of the league."
The rest of us will be sad to see him go, but eager to see what he can do in pro ball. Because Nola will be an outstanding major league pitcher, and it won't take him long to get there.
But he's not there yet. For now, he still belongs to college baseball. Let's enjoy it while we can.
SEC Tournament Notebook
• Vanderbilt righthander Tyler Beede, another surefire first-rounder, took the mound in the first game of the day and turned in an underwhelming performance in a 7-2 loss to Mississippi, eliminating the Commodores from the tournament. Unlike Nola, Beede got off to a strong start, retiring the first seven batters he faced. He pounded the strike zone in the early innings and recorded outs early in counts, but his command wavered in the middle innings. He walked three straight batters to open the fifth but escaped unharmed. Another leadoff walk led to a run in the sixth, and he exited the game after hitting the first two batters of the seventh. Both baserunners eventually scored in Mississippi's four-run seventh inning, giving Beede a final line of six-plus innings, three hits, four runs (three earned), five walks and four strikeouts.
With at least five general managers on hand, Beede did nothing to help his draft stock, as multiple scouts expressed disappointment with his 80-81 breaking ball, which lacked finish. He threw it sparingly, relying instead on his 81-84 changeup, which he can fade or cut.
"My go-to secondary pitch was my changeup," Beede said. "That was the only pitch I could really go to for a strike, to change their rhythm. Not too many curveballs.
"There were cases where I was just too erratic. My misses were just spraying everywhere . . . That falls on my shoulders; too many free passes."
Four Vanderbilt pitchers combined to issue eight walks and hit two batters, continuing a trend of control issues for the entire staff. That is clearly a cause for some consternation for coach Tim Corbin heading into the NCAA tournament.
"It's like when you're not shooting the ball well from the foul line," Corbin said. "You can talk about that a lot, but the kids have to execute. They don't want to walk people. It's the last thing they want to do. It's one of those things, with their side work, try to execute. But you can't keep banging them on the head with it. They know what they need to do."
Ole Miss scratched scheduled starter Christian Trent with some fatigue, so lefthander Jeremy Massie got the start and held the Commodores to a run over 4 1/3 innings. Bullpen stalwarts Aaron Greenwood and Josh Laxer took it from there, holding Vandy to one run over the final 4 2/3. Laxer's stuff was electric, as his fastball sat 93-95 and his 81-83 slider was sharp.
"Laxer was fresh, obviously—he hadn't thrown in a while, and was dominant," Ole Miss associate head coach Cliff Godwin said. "He pounded the strike zone, was throwing the fastball in the mid-90s and had a good slider as well. He was dominant."
• Mississippi's win helped bolster its national seed case, particularly when combined with South Carolina's 7-2 loss to Florida, which knocked out the Gamecocks after an 0-2 showing in Hoover. Casey Turgeon led the Florida offense with three hits and two RBIs, and lefthander Bobby Poyner earned the win in relief with five scoreless, two-hit innings of work. The Gators are well stocked with savvy strike-throwers like Poyner, who is a candidate to assume a starting role in regionals, according to coach Kevin O'Sullivan. Florida might not have any superstars like it did from 2010-12, when it made three straight trips to Omaha, but the Gators are a gritty group who have proven they know how to win.
"I think, unfairly, we get compared to the '10, '11, '12 teams," O'Sullivan said. "There might not be a lot of flash in our team, but as far as fundamentals, playing stout defense, we don't walk people. We do take good opportunities at the plate. A lot of things have to happen to win the SEC regular season. I think we have a lot of energy, a lot of good players. Those teams were obviously very special, but this one is special too. We'e just got a bunch of baseball players. There's a bunch of guys who are going to play pro ball—it's not like we don't have prospects. You look around the field, just about everybody's going to play pro ball.
"I like this team. I don't know the ceiling of it, but I do like this team. They are young, but resilient and battle-tested."
Because of his team's youth, O'Sullivan thought it was important for the Gators to get a win in Hoover, even though they don't need any more victories to lock down a national seed.
"It's one thing to play the regular season, but this is a different environment for a lot of these players," he said. "To be in this atmosphere, you can't just take it for granted that they're going to walk into this environment and be comfortable. So I do feel good about the way they responded today."
• Kentucky, like LSU, advanced to Saturday's semifinal round with a 12-inning win against Mississippi State, 7-6. Zach Arnold bounced a walk-off single over LSU's drawn-in infield with the bases loaded in the 12th to end it. The two teams combined for 32 hits in the four-hour, 36-minute nail-biter, the longest game (in terms of time) in SEC tournament history.
Mississippi State had a big advantage on paper heading into the game, with lefthander Ross Mitchell getting the start against Kentucky freshman Zack Brown. But the Wildcats pieced together their pitching without their four big guns available, and they fought back from behind repeatedly. UK erased a 4-1 lead with three runs in the sixth, then came back from a 5-4 deficit with a run in the eighth, and overcame a 6-5 deficit with another run in the ninth.